Adelaide Festival Review: Pictures at an Exhibition (Quilty, the Violet Ballet, the earth sighed… and Grand Finale)

Self portrait (Ben Quilty)

As the curtain falls on the 2019 Adelaide Festival, the @adelaidefestival visual arts program was a feast for the senses encompassing the harrowing reality of Afghanistan to questions on the health of our planet and a salute to one of the 20th century’s cultural icons – the Ballet Russes.

While the main festival program has now come to a close, some of the visual arts exhibitions will continue into the coming weeks, providing one with a chance to overcome festival withdrawal symptoms.

Beautifully rich in humanity, Quilty is a wonderful exhibition that skilfully captures the career of one of Australia’s top contemporary artists, Ben Quilty. His thought provoking works are an important commentary on 21st century Australia.

While the exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia has been described as a retrospective of his work, there are only a couple of pieces from the early Torana series, along with his 2011 Archibald winning portrait of Margaret Olley. Instead curator Lisa Slade has concentrated on more recent series that highlight his increasing push for social justice. These cover such topics as the plight of refugees, acknowledging Australia’s frontier wars and his campaign to save the lives of Bali Nine pair Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.

My work is about working out how to live in this world, it’s about compassion and empathy but also anger and resistance. Through it I hope to push compassion to the front of national debate.

(Ben Quilty)

It is an emotional exhibition. Some works such as The Last Supper, painted at the time of Trump’s rise to the U.S presidency noisily clamour for attention; while others, such as the haunting Seeking Refuge or the despair of the returning soldiers such as Captain Kate Porter featured in the Afghanistan and After series, lead to quiet introspection and thought.

Quilty is an emotional exhibition that illustrates the energy, passion and empathy of this remarkable artist and of his genuine drive through his art to give a voice to those who are unable to get their message out.

and the earth sighed…

and the earth sighed… at the South Australian Museum is an absolutely fascinating and riveting immersive experience that draws you into Australia’s vast landscapes.

Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski, combine cinema and aerial photography (via drones) to comment on the our relationship with that landscape.

This stunning installation brilliantly brings home the impact of climate change on our fragile continent. The large scale floor projections show us how our environment is changing now and not at some far off future point. While embracing the moment as you watch the projections unfold, you are also aware of an urgency to the questions and the earth sighed… raise. It’s powerful and moving with the images lingering with you long after you leave.

What’s behind the curtain? The Violet Ballet.

Sally Smart’s The Violet Ballet is another immersive multi-media experience that pays homage to the Ballet Russes through a combination of collage, video, text and Indonesian wayang (shadow puppetry).

It is a wonderful kaleidoscope of colour, movement and sound as Smart, one of Australia’s foremost contemporary artists, makes a triumphant return to her home state. In The Violet Ballet she looks particularly at Ballet Russes’ production of Chout, performed in 1921. It is a macabre story that provides an opportunity for Smart to reset it to the 21st century through a lens that also includes the legacy of colonialism and orientalism.

Here they are leaping across, puncturing surfaces, assembling themselves on the go

Out of scraps, swirls,

Out of feeling passed on as movements…

Movements passed on as feelings.

(The Violet Ballet)

Just like a collage, the medium that Smart is best known for, The Violet Ballet is a multi layered work that is open to many interpretations. The Ballet Russes made a deep impact on early 20th century dance, art and music. This exhibition clearly illustrates how their legacy continues to influence artists such as Smart almost a century later.

Although not part of the visual arts program, as this is my final Adelaide Festival 2019 review it would be remiss if I didn’t include commentary on my final AF event – the extraordinary Grand Finale by the Hofesh Schechter Company.

This is a dance for the end of time as this phenomenal work takes your breath away. Grand Finale is an explosion of sound and movement; it is powerful, arresting and just beautiful on so many levels. There is an allure in the macabre.

Sitting in Festival Theatre just hours after the harrowing events in Christchurch, it seemed somewhat fitting to contemplate on the things human beings do to each other through this mesmerising work described by artistic director Hofesh Schechter as an apocalpytic response.

Despite the bleak undertones in Grand Finale as it grapples with the themes of death, disaster and disintegration; there is also a message of hope and resilience. There is a wonderful moment during the interval when the show’s musicians lead the audience on a brief sing a long.

In a festival that had so many wow factor moments for me Grand Finale was indeed the stand out of the 2019 Adelaide Festival.

Other highlights of this year’s program included the heartbreaking beauty of the Another Life: Human Flows/Unknown Odysseys exhibition, Kassem Eid’s poignant description of the day his village in Syria was subject to a chemical attack by the Assad regime during Adelaide Writers’ Week; and By Heart, the moving and inspiring love letter to books and words.

In an uncertain world, Adelaide Festival 2019 was ultimately a celebration of our humanity. For 18 days we stopped, paused and remembered that there is in fact more that unites than divides us. To Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy, along with the rest of the AF team, thanks for enthralling, entertaining and challenging us with a brilliant program. I for one already can’t wait to do it all again next year.

Quilty is showing at the Art Gallery of South Australia until Sunday 2 June. Admission is free. For more details visit

The Violet Ballet is showing at ACE Open, Lion Arts Centre until Saturday, 27 April. Admission is free. For more details visit

And it’s goodbye from Elder Park and The Palais.

About crossbordertales

A former journalist and frustrated author currently working in media and communications based in Adelaide, South Australia. This site is a collection of my writing, the people I have met and photos that have come from living and working in both South Australia and South West Victoria a joy. I hope you enjoy these cross border tales.
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